Sweet Bitterleaf

The day Daddy’s release from prison was announced on the radio was the day I discovered that feelings could taste sweet. Mama fell to the floor crying. Grandma and Aunty Nina, Mama’s mother and sister held her while thanking God for his work. Big Papa looked pleased and his pleasure seemed to increase when Uncle Clovis came home with the palm wine he’d gone out to get for him just before the announcement was made. My joy seemed to bubble up from my stomach and spill over my tongue and it tasted sweet like honey. Me and my cousin Shirley jumped up and down happily hugging each other close. A few minutes after the announcement was made, a large crowd of people flooded into the compound of our house in Bonduma, in their jubilation, trampling over and completely destroying the vegetable and flower gardens Mama worked so hard to keep neat and productive. The crowd grew big, so wide reaching was Daddy’s influence, the gendarmes had eventually shown up to disperse them, careful to behave appropriately, because they knew that anyone who had so quickly been arrested, taken to Yaoundé and then released by the Regime without anything untoward happening to them, was someone to treat with care. My cousin Shirley and I exchanged wide eyed looks after as we surveyed the yard, concerned what Mama’s reaction might be when she saw the damage to her years of hard work. She had barely noticed, so great was her joy. I walked around that day and the days that followed until Daddy came home, with the sweet taste of joy sitting at the back of my tongue, drawing its fullness out to savor fully when I remembered that soon, I will be able to hug my Daddy and smell his perfume again, read newspapers with him, ask him all my questions, and drive around with him as he checked on his farms and various projects in Buea. It feels good to see how loved and respected my father is. His workers always look very happy when he shows up. These activities with my father are the highlights of my life. It’s not a very long life as I am six years old. I used to say “only” six years old but Daddy told me to embrace my age. I was not sure what he meant so I asked him. He told me it means to be ok with being a six year old girl and learning how to be the best six year old girl I could be.

The day Daddy came home from prison is the day I learned that feelings could also taste bitter.  Grandma and Aunty Nina had come to our house from the village the day after Daddy was arrested. So had Big Papa, daddy’s father and Uncle Clovis who was a distant relation I couldn’t explain but who always travelled with Big Papa to assist him. I had not like being made to say hello to all of them when they arrived. Their attention made me itchy and I did not like being touched by anyone but my Daddy. Big Papa patted us on the cheeks and commented on how we were big women already. He asked Shirley when she was getting married. I frowned in confusion when he asked that because Shirley is only 13 but everyone laughed, like it was the most normal question in the world. Maybe they were just glad to be given a reason to laugh because it felt like a cloud of tension and fear had descended over our house after Daddy got arrested.  As everyone laughed, I noticed Uncle Clovis looking at Shirley, his eyes lingering on her the way Daddy’s eyes linger on Mama when she forgot to wear her house coat over nightgown. Shirley didn’t like this very much. I think so because I looked at her right at the moment she caught Uncle Clovis staring. Her eyes grew bigger then she looked at the floor. Her body then slouched over as if she was trying to hide her chest. The whole exchange caused my heart to skip a beat. I wasn’t sure why but I was sure the tight feeling I got between my eyes and nose after was not something I wanted to feel again. More relatives showed up from the village the next day, crowding into our house. The day of the return itself, even more relatives and friends started showing up as early as 6am, bringing food, drinks and anything they thought would contribute to the celebration.  It was a happy festive mood in the house. A little bit like Christmas but the buzz of excitement held something more to it. I heard the uncles sitting and talking in the parlor say Daddy is a true son and protector of his people. They continued to list Daddy’s good qualities: a well-known business man, a family man, young and dynamic, with good values and ideas as demonstrated in the scathing takedown of the Regime he had penned that got him arrested. The conversation shifted to politics with the men debating loudly if secession was really an option and if they could trust any of the people likely to run in the presidential elections next year. I heard some suggest that Daddy should run in the presidential elections or even lead the move for secession. The men in the room seemed to like the idea. Uncle Kome, Daddy’s classmate from Sasse seemed to like it the most.

“He is the best we have right now, I can’t believe we didn’t see this before!” he said in his typical forceful manner, his booming voice rattling the small cavity of my chest. As he talked, I saw small drops of spittle fly from his lips from where I sat in the corner fiddling with the food I didn’t really want to eat because I didn’t want to spoil the taste of joy in my mouth as I listened to everyone talk about my father.

“The man has had integrity since from our school days, so what he wrote did not surprise me” Uncle Kome continued, proud of his long relationship with my father. “We thought he was quiet but the teachers would always read his essays to the class because they were so brilliant. He is a natural leader. One article in the Post! Just one! And the Regime gets so afraid they send goons to arrest him. What a failure of a government!”

The men in the room agreed heartily. They talked about Mama too. She would be a real asset, a whole professor, and of course a beautiful woman.

In the kitchen, Mama and the women cooked.

When the car carrying Daddy showed up, I was the first to see it because I was waiting near the gate. My excited scream when I caught a glimpse of the familiar silhouette of my father’s head drew everyone’s attention and people came pouring out of the house. They and everything else disappeared as I focused on the man whose presence in my life was love, safety and joy. I flew into his arms, his laughter washing over me like a sweet, warm river of love. All was right in my world again. I fell asleep that night curled in Daddy’s arms, against a backdrop of music, the thick scent of beer and palm wine and excited talk about elections and secession. That word again. I told myself I had to ask Daddy it means.

I woke up in my bed from one of the bad dreams I started having when Daddy got arrested. Normally, I went to Shirley’s bed but I was already sharing my bed with her, since Grandma and Aunty Nina shared the other bed in the room. I listened to her soft breathing for a few seconds before deciding tonight was a night I couldn’t bear to be separated from my father. Still half asleep, I made for my parent’s room hoping to get in their bed. I stopped at the door when I heard sounds from inside the room, then froze in surprise, coming fully awake when I realized the sound I heard was the sound of Mama crying. Why is Mama crying? I thought. Daddy is home! She should be happy. Why is she crying? Was he in there with her?  I wanted to open the door, go into the room and ask why she was crying but then I heard Daddy’s voice low and deep. I could not make out what he said but he sounded angry. The volume of her crying seemed to increase just a little before being abruptly cut off then I heard a sharp intake of breath, a scuffle, footsteps and what sounded like a muffled yelp. I got that tight feeling between my eyes and nose again and the sweetness of joy I had pulled to my tongue as I thought about sleeping close to my parents seemed to intensify to the point my tongue felt numb then as the intensity dissipated, a flat bitterness was all I could taste. A small crack formed where my chest used to be solid and sure. It frightened me. Why is Mama crying? I decided to go back to the room I shared with my cousin. As I turned away from the door, a rhythmic sound, similar to the sound Daddy and Mama’s bed made when I jumped on it came through the closed door. I would have had to be jumping very fast to mimic this sound, though.

The next day, Daddy and Mama seemed happy with each other so I asked none of the bitter-tasting questions that had lodged themselves in my mouth. Over the next weeks, things slowly returned to a new kind of normal. Grandma, Aunty Nina and Uncle Clovis stayed after everyone else left. I was glad Grandma and Aunty Nina stayed even though that meant I had to share the bed with Shirley but Uncle Clovis’s presence confused me. He was always with Big Papa, and I wondered who would fetch the beer and palm wine Big Papa seemed to exist on if they were apart. When I asked Daddy about it, he said Big Papa was worried what might happen to him next, he wanted Uncle Clovis to stay and keep watch over the family. Daddy now spends a lot of time travelling and meeting with different people to talk about politics. He doesn’t take me to these meetings as he would his other meetings. I asked him why and he told me these discussions would be too heavy for a little girl. It made me want to go even more. I wanted to spend time with my Daddy in case the Regime came and arrested him again. I wanted to know about politics if that was how one stood up to the Regime that arrests people’s fathers because they write well. I continued to have bad dreams which seemed to increase every time Daddy came home from one of his trips. Sometimes, I would wake up and go to their room to sleep with them. The nights I heard Mama crying and those strange sounds, I went back to my room after licking some toothpaste to lessen the bitter taste that coated my tongue, breathing through my mouth as if that would stop the crack in my chest from growing bigger, spreading from the point in the center. Very soon I began to hate this politics thing that had come into our lives and taken my Daddy away from me. I felt like crying and the broken glass screen that was my chest vibrated in a weird way when I thought about it for too long. Is that why Mama cries at night too sometimes? I wondered.

The tightness between my eyes and nose and the bitter taste on my tongue have become a fixture of my life since then. A few weeks later, however, when I saw Fatou, our Francophone neighbor’s house help crying behind their firewood kitchen, the tightness bloomed into a headache. Mama sent me to get bitterleaf from the garden in the backyard which was the one the part of our yard that had not been trampled upon weeks earlier. I was glad to have something to do in the kitchen because I always felt like I was underfoot when Mama and Shirley were cooking. Today, with Aunty Nina and Grandma present, my services were scarcely needed at all. I went off on my errand happily and picked the leaves carefully as I’d been taught to. The first thing I heard was hurried footsteps then a heavy sob followed by hysterical crying. I peered through the wood fence and shrubs that divided our compound from theirs and saw her sitting on the ground, her plump body folded in on itself, shaking as she wept. The crying was many things I didn’t have words for yet but the sound, the keening, hollow, hopeless sound of it hit the already fragile space in my chest, exploding its fractured solidity into many tiny slivers. A big yawning, seemingly bottomless hole was left and I felt myself falling into it and the bitterness flooded my tongue so strongly I felt I could scrape it off with my teeth.

“Fatou?” My voice trembled.

Her head swung up in shock when she heard her name. She scrambled up from her sitting position and ran to the fence, her eyes wide with fear. She had sought out the spot hoping to hide, I realized. From who? I thought frantically, feeling my own fear rise. I walked to a spot in the partition that had little shrubbery so I could see her. She moved over to where I stood.

“Rosa!” she whispered my name urgently, crushing the “r” as Francophones do. She pressed her face close to mine through the fence, so close I could see the red veins in her eyes, swollen from crying, the tears still forming as the spoke. There was a bruise on her lips with what looked like bite marks on them. I could smell her sweat, the Vaseline she used for body lotion, and the sour breath that accompanied the words that came out of her mouth next. “No tell any man you see me crying. I beg you! Promise!”

“Ok.” I whispered.

I blurted out what I had witnessed the moment I got back to the kitchen. The air seemed to go out of Mama’s body when she heard my words and she cast a worried look towards the neighbor’s house. Grandma and Aunty Nina both looked askance at her. Shirley sat frozen with a faraway look in her eyes.

“Has Aurelie’s father come back from Yaoundé?” Mama asked Shirley.

My cousin nodded, suddenly very interested in the plantains she was peeling.

Mama sighed.

“The least they could do is send the child to school.” Aunty Nina murmured.

“When she’s not a relative?” Grandma asked, sounding scandalized.

“All women need an education these days, Mama.” My mother said softly.

That wuna book wey di make am woman no di want shiddon inside house, so…” Grandma said, her mouth set in a decidedly disapproving line, as she leaned over to poke at the wood fire.

I saw Mama and Aunty Nina exchange looks. No one said anything else. Aunty Nina and Grandma left a couple of days later and Uncle Clovis stayed.

I asked Daddy why Aurelie’s father makes Fatou cry about a week later, when he was in town.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Fatou and the hole in my chest but neither Shirley nor Mama wanted to discuss the topic again. Besides, they always treat me like a child and Daddy answers my questions like I am smart enough to understand.  I had to wait because Daddy is now very busy. He travels a lot and when he is not, he is talking politics with the seemingly endless stream of men who come by to visit in the evenings. I asked him when we sat in his study as was our morning tradition, him reading the newspaper, me halfheartedly doing calligraphy exercises since Daddy wanted me to have perfect cursive writing. I worked quietly waiting for him to share some news from the paper with me so we could discuss it but that had happened less and less since his arrest and release. Now, we mostly spent what he called our daddy-daughter time with him reading and me doing some exercise he assigned. My questions needed answering, though. He’d come back from Bamenda the day before and Mama had cried last night. I wanted to understand what was happening around me and why I now walked around with this hole in my chest I was deathly afraid I would fall into. His lips set into a very hard line when I asked my question and he asked me where I’d heard that. I told him the events of the week before, down to Mama’s conversation with Shirley, Aunty Nina and Grandma. His body vibrated tensely when I finished. I’d never felt that from my father. It frightened me and the hole in my chest seemed to pulse in invitation.

“I’m going to have a talk with your mother about the conversations she has in front of you.  But I will try to answer your question since you asked. Relationships between men and women are complicated and people feel hurt sometimes, so they cry. That’s all that was. You see, the girl told you not to tell anyone, right? That means she will be fine, so do not worry about it. Just remember that no good and honorable man would do anything to make a woman cry, alright?”

I wanted to ask him about Mama and why she cries at night. I wanted to ask him if that meant that he was not a good and honorable man himself. But I already know my Daddy is a good and honorable man and that now, sometimes Mama cries at night. I felt that tightness between my eyes and nose again so I said nothing more. I didn’t want a head ache. That night I slept with my parents. I woke up the next morning from a dream about Fatou, Aurelie’s father and I which involved us falling down that hole in my chest –  her crying bitterly as she had been that day, him laughing as I’ve heard him laugh over the fence from time to time and me listening to them in a detached way. I perked to attention when I heard Fatou’s name and knowing they would stop talking if they knew I was awake, I pretended to still be sleeping.

“Stay out of that business, Beatrice” my father was saying. “First of all, they are Francophones and he is a military man. This is a delicate time for everyone. The girl, they call her Fatou? Didn’t she tell Rosa not to tell anyone? Obviously, she has some stake in keeping the situation as it is, which looking at the man’s wife makes it understandable. She’s young but they pay her probably makes it worth it. She’s always seemed too loose for my taste and reasonable men do not do what you claim that man is doing.  And even if so, that is more reason we must break away from these people. I hope Shirley no longer goes over there.”

Mama assured him that she doesn’t.

I told Shirley what Daddy had said and her eyes took on a glassy look like she would cry. She said nothing for a few seconds, her breath seeming to flutter in and out of her chest.

“He’s right.” She said finally, her normally high-pitched voice a small sound barely louder than a whisper. She wouldn’t meet my eyes when she said it and seemed to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, avoiding everyone. Her mood was so bad, she disobeyed Mama for the first time I’d ever witnessed and refused to take Uncle Clovis his food in his room when Mama asked her to.

Mama beat Shirley for the first of many times that day.

 

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Finding Epie will not fix our rape culture problem

I was about  20 years old and in my final year of university when I was first sexually assaulted by an adult man.

I didn’t resist.

Don’t get me wrong I was in shock that this was happening to me. ME of all people. Like what?! Which motherfucker??! I was enraged, livid, murderous. He knew me. Knew my parents. Knew my family. Knew I was the kind of girl who could speak for herself. I knew his wife, his children. That didn’t stop him. I daresay THAT was why he targeted me.

And I didn’t resist.

Why, you may ask?  Because what I felt at that moment as he slid his hands up my thigh, as he pushed aside my panties, what I felt was resignation. Resignation and a bone deep tiredness born of disappointment, disillusionment and disgust. That moment was a culmination of what I had always known about my community but had hoped would be something I was wrong about.

As a girl growing up in Cameroonian society, you understand pretty quickly that you are not yours. Yes, you are you but you are not yours. You are there for men (regardless of their relationship to you) to control, to look at, comment on, maybe admire…or grope, insult, dominate and eventually own, because that is what marriage (still the highest achievement women can have in our society) is in our communities. Ownership. Don’t believe me? Look at the disproportionate praise and admiration men who do not treat their wives like trash get. Never mind that being married to someone should mean you place that person’s welfare as high as your own.

I was 10 the first time I was catcalled. I was walking up Clerk’s Quarters road in Buea trying to catch a taxi to GRA where we lived. A truck full of soldiers drove by to the camp at Long Street and the whistles erupted almost immediately. I ignored them. Realizing they would get no response from me, one of them called out:

Tu te prends pour qui? Avec tes grosses fesses la, espece de wolowos.

As I moved into my teens and developed as a woman, it became worse. It was almost as if my developing body was an invitation. I don’t need to give too many examples. Any Cameroonian woman (or African woman, or woman for that matter) can tell you what “worse” means. Worse is at home, at school, at work, on the streets, on the farms, in the markets. Worse is normal. Worse is expected. Worse is defended.

Worse is quite literally life. Your value as a woman in this society hinges on how well you can deal with worse. Your value hinges on if and how well you can love worse, marry worse, understand worse, make space for worse, forgive worse, turn a blind eye to worse. It’s why we praise our parents and grandparents relationships even though we KNOW the fuckshit the women almost always had to put up with.

This is the culture in which we live, move and have our beings. A culture where you as a woman are not safe from any man, regardless of his relationship to you. A culture where you are expected to take precautions to ward against a danger even though you don’t know which face that danger will be wearing when you finally meet it. A culture where you will ultimately get blamed and disparaged for other people’s decisions because you had the effrontery to become their victim.

I am tired.

I have written abut our communities and our messed up approach to sexuality Here, Here and Here.

 

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Can’t play fair if the “game” is rigged

I see a general awakening in the minds of women from my part of the world. I see that the concept of self-love, self-preservation and self-interest is gaining on. I see more and more young women raising their voices against the unjust and harmful standards our mothers and female forbears were held to. This is often situated in language encouraging young women to be responsible for themselves and their destinies. To not look at marriage or men as a way out, to demand and work for what they want and play the game too, and do it without complaining because this is just the game. I do this too and I do it because far be it from me not to encourage a fellow woman to reject a lesser life. It’s a big world out there and you too can make your mark in any way you choose, sis. Go for it.

What I’d like to see more of though, especially for Cameroonian women, is the acknowledgement of just how shitty, selfish, manipulative and fucking awful men can be. The acknowledgment of just how much almost all systems within the patriarchal communities we live in , whether economic, political, social are engineered to help men succeed and keep women out.  I’d like to see more honest conversations about the mental bracing, blatant opportunism and self interest that is necessary if one, as a woman, would prevail in this world. I’d like to see more of the acknowledgement that while we push young women to these feats of daring and accomplishment, we fail to equip them fully with every material and immaterial weapon in their arsenal, and thus set them up for failure at worst and an uphill battle at best.

Here’s a truth: Men, heterosexual men in particular – be it your father, brother, cousin, uncle, friend, lover, colleague, employer – will try to get the most physical, emotional and psychological labor, material resources etc out of us for as little as possible and we have been conditioned by our society to be ok with that. To allow it. We’ve been conditioned to think this is what it means to love a man, to have lived successfully as a woman, to pour yourself out as a living sacrifice, to take your very feminine essence and lay it out for a man to use and often abuse at his whim. You bear children, cook food, clean his mess, tolerate his rubbish and immature, inconsiderate impulses, you make your body and being available, take a step back at work, not assert yourselves, aspire for less so you can give them space to shine, without even realizing it, be modest, be humble, be meek and do all this regardless of any hopes and aspirations you might have. This, above all, is your calling. Saying NO to any of this at any level immediately brands you as difficult or complicated. Meanwhile the men in our communities have been allowed to imagine more, dare more, risk more, want more, have more, be more.

Now you are being told stand up for yourself because “woman eh!” and to do it with unimpeachable integrity while NOTHING is being done to ensure that this will be a level playing field. The game has been rigged from the onset but the only person really expected to follow the rules at this point is you. You are also being told it is your responsibility to demand and expect that men treat you better and simultaneously vilified for doing exactly that.

That’s a shame isn’t it?

You know what I mean, ladies. You run up against it time and time again. You’re doing everything right, but you end up holding broken pieces because you’re in a game where the men are looking out for themselves, with blatant selfishness and you’re running yourself ragged trying to hold them accountable to the ridiculous standards they have set but do not follow, so you can maintain your sanity and keep a clear conscience in the assurance that you’re a good person, but also not push them away because quite honestly, you care. You don’t want to be lonely.
Sis, it’s a trap.

In the words of one of my favorite women of all time, Ninon de L’Enclos

“Feminine virtue is nothing but a convenient masculine invention.”

All the restraints that have been placed upon you are not designed to save you or protect you. They are designed to control you. To harness the deep resources of your mind, body and spirit and exploit them shamelessly while you fool yourselves with notions of moral superiority, all the while dragging around broken spirits and ravaged dreams.

Now am I saying that we go out and do unto them what they are doing unto us? Maybe.

Ninon again:

“It is strange that modesty is the rule for women when what they most value in men is boldness.”

Strange indeed, isn’t it?

Think about it. You’re being hoodwinked, ladies. Open your eyes. Don’t fall into the trap of letting the oppressor dictate how you fight for your liberation or empowerment, or what that liberation/empowerment should look like. Most importantly, do not let yourself be deceived into thinking you have to toe imaginary lines and follow rules which when push come to shove mean little to nothing. People may talk but people have always talked haven’t they? The world kept right on spinning.

Decide what you need to stay happy, sane and productive this world and go after it with reckless abandon.

I’ll write more about this subsequently.

Peace.

FPW

Stand Your Ground

Cameroonian Girl

Stand your ground. There’s no man born who can take you out unless you allow it. And you’ve been taught to allow so much, anything else feels wrong.

Stand your ground.

You’re not crazy. You’re not asking too much. You’re not being unreasonable. You’re not being selfish. You’re not arrogant or full of pride. You don’t even think as high enough of your self as they accuse you of. Think higher.

Stand your ground.

Even if it means you’ll stand alone. Even when it hurts and you want to die . When it feels wrong, when it feels right. When it feels good, when it hurts. When you win and when you lose (and yes you will).

Stand your ground.

You’re not weak. You’re not defective.  You’re only human. You’re not perfect. You’re a seed which grew where it fell from the Universe’s hand. Fate will storm on you. You will break and be broken.  Branches, leaves and fruit will be lost. And the waters will wash these pieces downstream.

Stand your ground.

When that’s over, when that rain stops as rains is known to do, stand up. You’re stronger than you realize and you carry the DNA of women who’ve carried the world on their shoulders. Trust the soil you were planted in. Reach deeper. You grew there didn’t you?

Stand your ground.

You will win. Or your daughters will.

But you have to stand your ground.

Bush Faller Lament

It’s not supposed to be like this, is it?
“Bush” is supposed to be safe.
“Bush” is supposed to be comfortable.
Predictable even.
You clean enough shit and “put your head for book,”
Play your cards right and don’t be too much of a crook,
And one day, you too can be a bushfaller,
With a fast car and money to blow in Limbe at Christmas.

It’s not supposed to be like this.
Your mother couldn’t have warned you about the quiet white boy who kept to himself.
Or the police officer who thinks you inferior to himself.
Or the Pakistani boy who’s not been himself, since the day he held his fathers lifeless hand and cursed the people who would kill a poor farmer and not the pashas.

It’s not supposed to be like this, is it?
The rising tide of fear.
The question niggling the back of your brain.
The one you push down, as you try to assure yourself it will all be alright.
That you and yours are too small, to be of any consequence in this fight.

It’s not supposed to be like this.
And yet here we are.
Crying more than the bereaved.
And what do we really mourn?
The lives lost?
Or the death of the illusion of safety we’d allowed ourselves to buy into?

The Parable of the Flower in the Sun

The was once a flower, beautiful as can be. With petals big and soft and a rainbow of hues such as none had ever seen, it grew in the wild where all could see and admire its beauty. It took nutrients and water from the soil and enjoyed what sun it could get, each season  blooming and growing, shedding its petals to produce even more beautiful ones.

One day, the sun noticed this flower and marveled at its glory.

“I’ll go shine on it some more,” it said. “Surely, it could use some more of my nourishing light and warmth.”

And so the sun came and shone its light on this flower.

And the flower bloomed and grew, each season shedding its petals to produce even more beautiful ones. It loved the light, basked in the warmth and blinded all that came by with its magnificence.

Sunshine-Flower-High-Quality-Wallpaper

But then the sun grew smug.

“Look how much that flower wants my light. See how it blooms in my warmth! See how it opens its petals to my probing rays! See how thirsty it is for my focus…”

And so the sun, varied its focus. Some days shining bright on the flower, some days leaving it in the shade, some days never rising at all.

And still the flower grew, and bloomed and shed its petals just to produce even more beautiful ones.

Because that is what flowers do.